Can Kerala accommodate the rush of women pilgrims?
News analysis

Can Kerala accommodate the rush of women pilgrims?

Supreme Court has finally ruled in favour of allowing women to visit Sabarimala and other temples even during the monthly period. There are many devotees who are unhappy, particularly in Kerala, about the judgment as they feel the 800 year old rituals and practices should not be interfered with. Some are planning a revision petition on the judgment.

But the problem for Kerala is accommodation of young women pilgrims to Sabarimala in huge numbers by road, rail and air. One can safely predict that the number of pilgrims would be nearly doubled due to the judgment. There may not be many ladies from Kerala who will rush to Sabarimala because of the clearance by the highest court as they would not like to violate the centuries-old conventions and practices. But from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka one can expect a sizeable number of women rushing to the holy temple. Even now Kerala does not have enough facilities for the male pilgrims travelling by road to Pamba- not enough toilets or facilities for bathing and eating due to the devastating floods. Thanks to some make shifts arrangements by small shopkeepers and organizations like Ayyappa Seva Samithi minimum facilities are organized during the Mandalam and Makaravillakku puja season.

One should expect a large number of pilgrims cum tourists this year from North and Eastern India. There is an increasing interest in Kerala temples these days. After the news about Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram hit the headlines for its substantial holdings of wealth in gold ornaments, precious stones, silver, ancient coins and cash. There is substantial increase in the number of visitors to the temple. In the case of Sabarimala temple the new judgment opens up the possibility of families visiting the temple as restrictions of women pilgrims/visitors have been lifted. This could attract a large number of families to visit Sabarimla which for some may not be just a pilgrimage but adventure tourism! This year we should be prepared for a great number of families marking the hill temple in their travel map.

After the Supreme Court verdict, on October 18 when the temple opens for monthly puja many expect that some young women may rush to the hill temple, surrounded by thick forests. There could be many young ladies heading to the temple during Mandala and Makara vilakku pujas (November 17 to January 14 normally).

Accommodating young pilgrims in huge numbers is no small responsibility. It has to start with law and order primarily. Kerala police is ill equipped with enforcing law and order and in dealing with the crimes even today as the influx of workers from outside states with criminal tendencies is seen to be rising. In addition there needs to be arrangements for attending to natures calls, bathing, washing of clothes and changing of clothes in privacy. Added to these are the provision for food and stay throughout the road sides. Medical facilities too are required. A major problem could be to deploy enough women police persons throughout the Sabarimala route, which devotees from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Puducherry may take. To deploy enough lady police officers in the temple complex and Pampa to the temple would not be a small number. In an agitation prone state like Kerala, where flash demonstrations, hartals and strikes are common in which ladies too take an active part in no small number, even for normal duties lady police officials are required and to spare some due to the new situation is not easy.

It is far more problematic from Pamba to Sannidhanam. Even now huge crowds result in a long wait to get darshan, sometimes it takes 8 to10 hours. Even to provide drinking water and light refreshments to those waiting in these long queues would require well planned arrangements and providing sufficient stocks. Many find accommodation difficult, to get space to lie on the floor or food in the allotted area is tough even now during the pilgrim season. Water and light refreshments will not be easy to provide when the number of pilgrims gets doubled during peak time. Again for women to get accommodation, bathing facilities and change of clothes in privacy is no minor issue. One can of course rule out room or dormitory facilities for women in huge numbers in Sannidhanam with limited accommodation to offer.

Though pilgrims from neighbouring states travel in their own vehicles, those coming from long distances will need vehicles to travel from railway stations, inter-state bus stations and airports to hire. They should be provided with vehicles on hire to go to Pamba. There needs to be enough arrangements for attending to mechanical troubles of the vehicles, the number of which will go up substantially.

The road conditions in the state are terrible even in normal times in most places. It has worsened due to the floods. Bottlenecks in places like Kuthiran on the Vadakkenchery-Thrissur national highway is a regular affair. An accident or a huge trailer truck tumbling can lead to hours of traffic jams. Is our PWD capable of getting the roads into a fit condition to meet the pilgrim rush? There needs to be sufficient traffic police on all these routes to get into action when faced with jams or accidents and rushing the injured to nearby hospitals with trauma centres.

But the important point is that the state machinery is even now actively engaged in rehabilitation of flood victims. They need attention and assistance as the number of people who have lost their houses is not small. To spare these officials for Sabarimala duties would be difficult. The state government needs to constitute a special work force for the Mandalam-Makara Vilakku peak season to attend to the increased number of pilgrims/visitors.

The state has to make an assessment of probable visitors in the coming months. If the expected number of visitors is huge, plans have to be made to manage the situation. The state should also examine the possibility of approaching the apex court to keep the order in abeyance this year if the authorities are not fully equipped to manage the huge influx of religious tourists. We can always plan well for the next year and attend to these visitors to Adi Sankara’s and Ayyappa’s land. But the chances are that the authorities may have to go for restricting the visitors. The state has already decided to restrict entry through on-line booking. This would mean disappointing lakhs and lakhs of visitors for whom the annual pilgrimage to temple is a way of life.

A major problem is that laws relating to environmental protection and preservation of forest lands which has dwindled considerably in the state due to unchecked denudation for, do come in the way of road development and building accommodation clearing the thick forest area. The requirements for rooms and dormitories would not be small. In addition, would be providing facilities like eating places, toilets, wash rooms, disposal of waste and organizing water and power supplies. Administrative back up is another area which would require serious attention. Perhaps Centre and State governments from where pilgrims visit the temple, along with Kerala government would have to plan after due deliberation on the problem. Restricting the visitors is one step but not an answer to the meet the challenges of the new situation.